On Sunday, we gathered as a church. We normally gather at nine and end sometime between noon and one, depending on when we get done eating together. Our most recent gathering, though, was from nine to five.
What happened? Well, a couple of things. First, a number of us had wanted to watch the Kansas City Chiefs play against the Tennessee Titans. That game started at 2:00. When we gathered on Sunday morning, we realized that there were some needs in the body that needed to be met that day and a brother and I decided to help between noon and 2:00. The rest stayed back and readied our house for the game. So our official “meeting” went until 12:30, but most of our church was together until about 5:00.
What was so awesome was that this felt like family. We encouraged each other in the morning: we sang, we read the Scriptures, we ate, we prayed, we even watched the kids put on a performance they created themselves. During that time we also talked, joked around, and shared hearts. When we were serving one of our brothers, we had some chances to interact with the community and do some outreach. Even while we were watching the football game, we discussed spiritual matters in between the action.
We don’t do this regularly, but we do this when it happens naturally. There’s no glory in just sitting in a room together for long hours to show how spiritual we are. However, when we can be family to each other, enjoy each other’s company, and help each other and other’s get closer to Jesus, there doesn’t have to be a clean start or stop time. We’re just together.
It was how church was designed to be.
Those of you who have been around for awhile may know that I have a deep love for Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a German pastor and Nazi resistor who ultimately gave his life trying to stop Hitler and the Nazis. Bonhoeffer was a more than just a resistor, though. He understood the centrality of Christ and His Church in a way that few did in his day.
Right now I’m taking a deep dive into Bonhoeffer’s life. I think there’s a lot to learn there. Here’s a quote I ran across today:
There is a word that when a Catholic hears it kindles all his feelings of love and bliss; that stirs all the depths of his religious sensibility, from dread and awe of the Last Judgement to the sweetness of God’s presence; and that certainly awakens in him the feeling of home; the feeling that only a child has in relation to its mother, made up of gratitude, reverence and devoted love; the feeling that overcomes one when, after a long absence, one returns to one’s home, the home of one’s childhood.
And there is a word that to Protestants has the sound of something infinitely commonplace, more or less indifferent and superflous, that does not make their heart beat faster; something with which a sense of boredom is so often associated, or which at any rate does not lend wings to our religious feelings–and yet our fate is sealed if we are unable again to attach a new or perhaps very old meaning to it. Woe to us if that word does not become important to us soon again, does not become important in our lives.
Yes, the word to which I am referring is ‘Church’, the meaning of which we have forgotten and the nobility and greatness of which we propose to look at today.Dietrich Bonehoeffer: A Biography by Eberhard Bethge, Page 42
Are we not in the same place today? Do we not need to recover the meaning of the word ‘Church’ and make it central and sacred in our lives?
Last week I tweeted a link to the statement of imprisoned Chinese church leader Wang Yi’s church. You can read it here.
In brief, Wang Yi is the pastor of an underground church in China, Early Rain Covenant Church. Pastor Wang and 100 of his fellow believers were arrested by the Chinese government about one year ago. Now, Wang has been sentenced to nine years in prison for subversion of state power and illegal business operations.
What I love about this statement is how it emphasizes things that we wouldn’t emphasize if we are being persecuted. The statement is written by a people who know what it means to suffer and how to do it well. It’s a model for how us as Christians should handle suffering as it becomes more and more normal to suffer for Christ in the West.
Here are just a few thoughts from the letter that I think Western Christians can learn from:
- “Christians should be willing to submit to the government’s physical restrictions of them.” What’s refreshing about this take is that Christians in America often get caught in a kind of antagonism where if we are jailed or even lightly rebuked for sharing the Gospel, we want to demand our rights. The apostle Peter tells us to submit to civil authority and to bear up under the pressure of suffering, even though we’ve done nothing wrong (see 1 Peter 2:13-20).
- Pastor Wang’s arrest is part of his calling. In the West, we often take on titles and positions as an antidote to suffering. We give difficult, arduous tasks to those who are farther down the “ministry ladder” than we are. However, Pastor Wang and his church understand suffering as a normal part of his calling. 1 Peter 2:20 tells us that we are called to follow Jesus into the same type of suffering he endured. We are called to suffering, especially as a servant of the Gospel. So OF COURSE he’s suffering. He’s responded to God’s call on his life. May we understand again that our calling is not what’s written on a business card, but to literally follow the footsteps of Christ, whichi includes suffering as He did.
- No crimes were committed. In a free society, Yi would not be jailed for his actions. I find this part of the statement interesting, mostly because I believe this to be an effort of the church to earn credibility with the Chinese people and people around the world. In arguing that he has not committed a crime, the church is defending his morality and trying to earn rapport with the rest of the world. Peter tells us it’s better to keep our integrity and suffer rather than to suffer for committing and actual crime (1 Peter 3:16-17) and the church seems to be making a case that this is what happened.
- No hate, just evangelistic love. After some exhortations of the Chinese government to “stay in their lane,” the church calls on believers to pray for the salvation of the Chinese government. This is so crucial. Many would be tempted to pray down God’s judgment, but the church is following in Jesus’ steps and saying “Father, forgive them, they don’t know what they do,” (Luke 23:24). It’s this kind of heart cry that will open the hearts of unjust persecutors to the truth of the Gospel and save some of them.
Imagine this-the church in America can learn to suffer for the glory of God. We can learn to submit to government authority and still obey God. We can embrace suffering as part of our calling and maintain our integrity. We can even pray for those who persecute us to find the light and the truth. We have no better teacher in this than our brothers and sisters in China and other parts of the world.
We just need to be willing to learn from them.
Picture yourself alongside the apostle Paul. There you are in a dark, miserable prison. Rats are plentiful. The smell of human waste is everywhere. You have no idea when you’re going to be released. You’ve been faithful to Jesus to share the good news of the gospel with many in the city of Philippi and because of that, you’ve had handcuffs slapped on your wrists and you were thrown into this prison.
Then, Paul leans over to you. You don’t necessarily expect Paul to gripe and complain, but you weren’t prepared for what he said next: “Brother, I know it’s late. I know we’ve just been beaten and the rats are starting to nip at us, but we should start praising the Lord.”
In that moment, what would your reaction be?
Now, I’m not going to sit here and tell you that I would just jump right in singing and praising God like Silas did. Your reaction to that statement tells a lot about what you believe God deserves praise for. Paul had learned something that others before Him learned: We don’t just praise God because circumstances are going well. We praise Him because of who He is.
In this way, praise is a discipline. We don’t just wake up one morning desiring to praise God in the darkest and most bitter circumstances. What’s more likely is that we begin every day to delight in God for who He is and what He’s done for us in whatever circumstance we find ourselves in. *This allows us to praise Him no matter the circumstances.*
Listen to David:
“I will rejoice and be glad in Your lovingkindness,
Because You have seen my affliction;
You have known the troubles of my soul,” (Psalm 31:7)
“Sing for joy in the Lord, O you righteous ones;
Praise is becoming to the upright,” (Psalm 33:1)
“I will bless the Lord at all times;
His praise shall continually be in my mouth,” (Psalm 34:1).
All of these point to David calling us to make a decision, based on who God is, to offer praise. None of these commands are based on the circumstances going on around him or us. In fact, some of them call us to praise in spite of the circumstances.
Beloved, we must get better at praising God for *WHO* He is, despite our circumstances. It’s the only practice that will get us to the place where we praise God in the prison. We want to be the people whose spirits are so alive with God that despite the gruesomeness around us we still love God.
We don’t get there in a minute. We get there day by day, praising God where we are at right now.
Some of you aren’t good at sharing your faith. You are fearful. You have a hard to bringing up Jesus in conversations. When you do,it’s muddled.
I understand. I’ve been there.
There are two things that I think every believer should understand about sharing their faith.
The first is that, with some exceptions, most of you were the best at sharing your faith when you knew the least about Jesus, Christianity, and theology. It was your fresh love for Jesus and the wonder of being saved at all that motivated you to tell your friends, co-workers, anyone who would listen about how great Jesus is. Did you lose that? If you did, it’s time to get it back. Growing in Jesus shouldn’t take away the wonder. If you grew away from the wonder of Jesus, maybe you grew in the wrong direction.
The other thing is that growing in sharing the good news takes time. Don’t get frustrated if the first, second, and third times don’t go well. Press on. Sharing your faith is a muscle you strengthen over time. You don’t set a resolution on New Year’s Eve to get in shape and wake up on January 2nd with a ripped body. You set a goal, work towards it, and slowly see improvement. John Wimber used to say you couldn’t say God didn’t heal today until you prayed for 100 people and nothing happened. I would submit to you that you can’t say you’re not good at evangelism until you shared the Gospel 100 times and nothing happens. In the mean time, pray, get closer to Jesus, get around some people who will support you in this journey. You will get better.
I’ve been doing this for the last couple of years, and finally, after a lot of ups and downs, I’m starting to get good at sharing the Gospel. No one’s come to faith (yet), but I’m somewhat regularly sharing in a way that I know connects to the hearts of people around me.
You can, too, if you don’t give up.
Yesterday was our “All House Church Meeting.”
It normally is the one time a month where our house churches gather together for a more concrete time preaching, worship, and vision casting.
I had a message to share that fit within those lines. It didn’t get shared yesterday.
Instead, when we gathered, everyone was catching up. The holidays were long and relationships needed some time to reconnect. Then, the news of a brother who was part of on of our house churches passing away had to be talked through. Next, an extended time of worship came and it was more participatory than normal. This is a good thing.
When worship was over, we talked over our network’s support of a house church network in Uganda and how we will handle finances with that. Then we talked over an upcoming time of fasting and prayer we hope to have. Then we prayed for those affected by the passing of our friend and those who needed healing. Then the pizza arrived and the kids could not be held back any longer.
So, no, we never got to the message.
We did sing the word back and forth to each other. We did live out the word in our care for one another. We did call each other to biblical financial principals and plan a way to increase our faithfulness. And we did pray for those who are sick and in need, like the Bible commands us to.
It’s rare for us not open the Bible when we gather, but if you had your eyes open, you might have watched a sermon in progress.
For those of you who don’t know, six months ago my wife and I welcomed our fifth biological kiddo into our lives. Korah Grace was born to us happy and healthy. Needless to say, I’ve been pulling a lot of extra hours being dad lately.
A few days ago I was holding Korah with my big Bible sitting on the arm of the chair next to me. She, with her six-month-old eyes and perception of reality reached out towards the Bible expecting to easily stuff the Bible in her mouth, only to find out that it was much bigger and heavier than she had originally thought. It wouldn’t just move under the weight of her little arms.
As I sat and watched her explore the world with her six-month-old senses, I realized that you and I aren’t so different from my daughter. We believe that we are much bigger than we really are. We think big truths (like the Bible) are able to be manipulated easily. It’s not until we try to manipulate them that we realize there is much more substance to them than our senses and perception of reality allow us to understand.
Wisdom comes when we realize we see in this age dimly. We don’t see the substance in spiritual truth like we need to. We believe we can manipulate it easily, when really if we had eyes to see, there’s so much more weight and gravity to God’s truth. It’s real and won’t move under our strength.
This is what my daughter has been teaching me lately.